In February, the UN's commission on human rights in North Korea published a report detailing grave human rights abuses committed by the country's leadership against its own people, on a scale that resembles atrocities committed by the Nazis. As the chair of that report, I wrote to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, to warn him that he could face trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. I will be here for the next hour to answer as many questions as I can, with the support of the Guardian's North Korea network


Edit: Right that’s a wrap. Thanks to everyone for the insightful questions, and for the concern about the fundamental human rights of the people of North Korea. Follow the progress of the COI on Michael's website

Edit 2: 10 things we learned from this AMA

Comments: 284 • Responses: 19  • Date: 

the1akshay129 karma

Having read your report, I was surprised it took so long for the UN to condemn human rights violations in North Korea. Nevertheless, it's out now, and awareness is continually rising, thanks to people like you:

  • Is it immoral to go to North Korea as a tourist?
  • Almost certain to be asked by others, but what can I, a teenaged British student, do to improve human rights in North Korea?

MichaelKirby163 karma

I don't think it is immoral to go to North Korea as a tourist. But it does not really help the human rights situation very much. May be meeting foreigners will break down the hatred against many of them. But tourists must understand that they will be under strict control. They will not be able to go far from their hotels and they will be constantly in the presence of their ‘’guides’’. This is not really tourism. It is controlled visits designed only to raise foreign currency, most of which will go to support the elite, not the ordinary people. That is the good thing about tourism. Meeting ordinary people and finding that we share so much in common, including our universal human rights.

nknewsoliverh128 karma

Hi Mr Kirby. Full clarification: I'm a reporter at NK News, and we have been closely following the findings of the COI report.

I'm wondering what your preferred outcome of the Commission of Inquiry would be. Would you like to see Kim Jong Un and his ministers at the ICC?

Could this set a new precedent in international law where leaders still in office can be called to answer questions of war crimes and human rights abuses? And if this isn't the case, what do you think is the use of a Commission of Inquiry into human rights in the first place?

MichaelKirby218 karma

I am glad that you have been following closely the findings of the COI report. I hope that you will consider the ways in which (now there is a Korean translation of the short report, shortly to be supplemented by a translation of the factual findings) you can make the report available to fellow Koreans in North Korea. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) is one of the most advanced digital economies in the world. There must be a way by which it would be possible to make the report of the COI available to every person in North Korea who has access to the intranet of that country. Please consider what can be done. The people of North Korea have a right, so far denied to them, to know what the COI of the United Nations has found concerning their country and the officials of the government and military of DPRK.

It is true that amongst the recommendations of the COI, the suggestion of referral of the question of North Korea to the ICC was one of the most important. This, objectively, should be done. It would signal to North Korea and the world that they must change and quickly. Nothing else has a prospect of such an immediate impact on thinking. Any such prosecution would put severe limitations on international movements of any named North Korean officials. It could have implications for further sanctions on relevant international financial transactions engaged in by or for such persons. Although some heads of state claim impunity (at least during the time they serve as heads of state) from prosecution for international crimes, international law does not recognise impunity in the case of the crime of genocide or crimes against humanity. Indeed, such crimes are crimes of universal jurisdiction. Although the COI on DPRK held back from finding a case suitable for prosecution on the grounds of genocide in the case of North Korea (because the traditional definition of genocide relates to destruction of people on the ground of ethnicity, nationality, race or religion) (North Korea's destruction of people is fundamentally based on grounds of actual or imputed political belief) the finding of a case suitable for prosecution on the ground of crimes against humanity is itself a most grave finding. It demands action of the United Nations. It enlivens the United Nations principle of the Responsibility to Protect. The United Nations cannot simply stand idly by and fail to fulfil its responsibility, given that North Korea cannot be relied upon to protect its citizens from such grave crimes.

It is important to understand that the international community is at a critical stage in the evolution of its responses to the most serious international crimes: including genocide and crimes against humanity. This is a testing time for the world and its people. But at least now we have established the principles of international criminal law. We have also established the ICC to uphold that law where the court has jurisdiction and a prosecutor determines that a prosecution should be undertaken and where the ICC is convinced, on the basis of the evidence, that proof is established beyond reasonable doubt that the named suspect is guilty of such crimes. By reference to past human history, we have made important progress in the last 60 years. The essential question presented by the grave human rights violations revealed in the report of the COI on DPRK is whether effective and prompt action will be taken. If it is, that will send an important signal not only to the oppressive officials in DPRK. The same signal will be heard around the world by oppressors and autocrats. This is the way effective rule of law was established originally in those countries that enjoy that fundamental right. It is the way the human species must ensure that the international community operates in defence of universal human rights and in defence of international peace and security. The two are intimately connected. Particularly, one might say, in the case of North Korea because of its possession of weapons of mass destruction and instability.

ClaytonBigsby778 karma

I’m currently a student at Fort Street High School and I want to let you know that you are mentioned at almost every assembly and highly praised.

My question is, knowing what you know about North Korea, how can the world help?

MichaelKirby74 karma

Good luck for your studies. Always remain idealistic about our world and its people.

The world can help by getting engaged with the report of the Commission of Inquiry (COI). And writing to politicians (especially foreign ministers) to insist that they should support the recommendations, including the one for referral of the case of North Korea to the international criminal court.

seunvanklip43 karma

I'm a current Law student studying in Aus. I realise the majority of questions will focus on your experience with North Korea, but if I could trouble you with a couple of questions specific to Australia that would be great.

  • What has been the most memorable moment in your career?

  • What influenced your decision to become a judge instead of pursuing a career in the private sector?

MichaelKirby84 karma

Curiously enough, I found most of the cases I sat in as an appellate judge (1984-2009) extremely interesting. My problem was not falling asleep on the bench. It was hyperventilation! Judging is a great responsibility but a very interesting job.

As to the decision to pursue a life in the public sector rather than make more money in the private sector, I grew up as a law student and legal practitioner in an age in which it was an enormous privilege in Australia to be invited to become a judge. I was a good advocate; but I think I was better at judging. I valued the opportunity to fulfil the trust of the parties and the community that I would decide the cases independently and fairly and then explain my reasons in language that they could understand, even if they did not agree. These are the experiences that I brought to bear in the work I performed, with my colleagues, in the COI on North Korea. I chose the profession of law when I was at school. This was mainly because I was much better at subjects like history, English and debating than I was at mathematics. There are three books written on my life and if you are really interested you can find reference to them on my website. But I suggest you probably have more important things to read! Including the report of the COI on North Korea!

(edit added links)

Flopublic39 karma

What does the UN plan to do against the massive human right abuses? About the camps? In Germany they had camps too. The faster you act, the more people will be free/alive.

MichaelKirby44 karma

The United Nations has yet to make final decisions on the report of the COI. It received strong support in the debates in the Human Rights Council. And amongst the members of the Security Council who participated in New York on 17 April 2014. Of the 15 members of the Security Council who attended (PR China and Russian Federation absent), 13 were there; 11 made speeches; 10 of the 11 came out in support of referral of the case of North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Gus_the_snail38 karma

Is there a strategy, in which this is the first step? How do you see this playing out?

MichaelKirby60 karma

It is now up to the nation states to consider what should be done. Reports suggest that North Korea has 20 nuclear armed weapons and missile delivery systems. There is therefore a matter of urgency and I believe that the international community understands this. The issues of peace and security are already on the agenda of the Security Council. What is needed is not a new resolution as such but an extension of the mandate that is already before the Security Council. It has the ultimate responsibility for the peace and security of the world. China, which is a key to the solution to the predicament of North Korea, is a great country, a mighty civilisation, most important economy and, as a permanent member of the Security Council has been extremely prudent in the use of the so-called veto. It has only invoked that privilege on nine occasions. I believe, and am hopeful, that wise leadership on the part of the permanent members of the Security Council will produce an effective response to the shocking revelations in the report of the COI. Simply to oppose and ignore the report because, generally, a country is opposed to country specific mandates is not an adequate response now that the report has been produced pursuant to the decision of the Human Rights Council (HRC). Nor is it sufficient to say that the COI report cannot be accepted because the COI was unable to persuade the country concerned (DPRK) to cooperate. This is to give all member countries of the United Nations and effective veto over human rights investigations decided by the HRC. That is not a correct understanding Of the Charter. The veto is confined to the Security Council and then is subject to the provisions Of the Charter.

shadowroy1316 karma

Is there anything that we at home can do other than sit back and watch? Will the regime fall on its time or will there have to be intervention to cause it to fall?

MichaelKirby34 karma

The ordinary citizen can express his or her belief that there should be action. This can be done in free societies in many ways: by joining civil society organisations that are dedicated to improving the situation in North Korea; by writing letters to the newspapers; by attending peaceful demonstrations of concern; by communicating to politicians to urge action; by joining political parties and generally making a noise. This is not possible in North Korea because of the suppression of any voices adverse to the regime. But it is possible in many countries of the world and those who enjoy freedom should cherish it and take advantage of it to be concerned about more than their own backyard. We should all be concerned about the great wrongs that are happening here and now to the people of North Korea. They are brothers and sisters to us. That is the whole point of Eleanor Roosevelt's Universal Declaration of Human Rights

bjanos16 karma

Just wondering, but there is a good chance he will not appear in court voluntarily, how would this be solved?

MichaelKirby29 karma

There is absolutely no possibility that the present Supreme Leader of North Korea would appear voluntarily before the ICC. There is a need for due process and the invocation of the jurisdiction of that court. Just as, in our own countries, we rely on the courts ultimately to enforce the law against everybody when there is a reasonable case that they should be obliged to answer. The COI decided, on the basis of its extensive testimony and investigation that there were reasonable grounds for warranting the commencement of a prosecution process for human rights violations (some of them rising to the extremely serious level of crimes against humanity). It is important and urgent to set that process in action.

Muggwoffin14 karma

Firstly I would like to thank you for your work in bringing wider recognition to the human rights abuses of North Korea.

I would like to ask how you feel about Andrei Lankov's suggestion that the regime is frightened by prosecution and clings to power for that reason, specifically I would like to know how you feel about his suggestion that the best way to bring about a non-violent collapse of the regime is to offer amnesty to the North Korean elite?

MichaelKirby25 karma

I have respect for Prof Lankovalthough curiously he declined to answer questions addressed to him by the COI and by me. He has the rare experience of having gone to the country as a young Soviet man and having continued to observe it over many years against the background of his own experience in the Soviet Union. Some of the most interesting items in the COI report relate to the revelations now available in the archives (freshly opened up) of the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (each now defunct). Keep in mind that the COI's role was subordinate. We simply had to make findings of fact, honestly and faithfully; and to express some conclusions and recommendations based on those findings of fact. We were fact finders not international diplomats. It is not for the COI to consider how the facts should be ultimately handled. That is for the representatives of the nation states in the United Nations organs (Human Rights Council, General Assembly, and Security Council). In any case, past experience tends to show that the leaders in North Korea do not respond to efforts at soft option strategies. I suspect that the only thing they respect and fear is the spreading of information about the truth in their country. And especially the risk that this information will get into the hands of the local population. There is evidence available to the COI that increasing numbers of Chinese cellphones are finding their way into North Korea. Because these have connection with the Internet, and are not restricted to the intranet, they may help to spread knowledge about the great wrongs being done to the people of North Korea by their government, party and military. In the upshot, the truth will out. Truth is a great cleansing agent. North Korea must be opened to the truth. I hope, now that the COI report has been translated into the Korean language, it will become increasingly available to the citizens of DPRK.

alexbate13 karma

Can your foresee a more positive situation in North Korea in the near future, or do you think the administration basically has to implode before starting again?

MichaelKirby25 karma

Of course I see a better future for North Korea. As Martin Luther King once said, the arc of history bends in the direction of equality and liberty. The COI approached its task assuming the continuation of a separate states such as North Korea. They are a member of the United Nations, so we did not assume the implosion. What we said was that they must comply with the UN Charter and human rights treaties, many of which they have signed but basically ignore). The future of the state of North Korea is entirely a matter for the people of that country. It does not belong to the United Nations or its COI.

ArreoTheCynic9 karma

The daily lives of North Korean citizens is hard to understand in the west given the lack of information and reporting. What most surprised or shocked you about the lives of ordinary North Koreans?

MichaelKirby37 karma

I agree that there is a lack of information and serious reporting on North Korea. But this is because it is a totalitarian state which tries to control not only the actions of its citizens but their thinking. It does not permit access to the Internet, only to an internal intranet. It does not allow access to international media or newspapers. It restricts its own newspapers to presenting the party line. It is, in this respect, a relic of the Stalinist era. It needs urgently to reform. That is what the COI recommended.

Many things shocked me in the Inquiry. They will shock you if you read the report of the COI. All of us should be aware of what is going on. That is the whole point of the commitment of the UN Charter to universal human rights and the adoption of the many UN human rights treaties (some of which North Korea has actually ratified but effectively ignores). The denial of the existence of political prison camps is shocking. Especially given the strong testimony and the corroboration by the international satellite images now available to the world. Likewise Google Earth can demonstrate the existence of what appear to be prison camps set up exactly as the witnesses described. The terrible situation in relation to food (which is continuing) was also shocking. The fact that, on figures that North Korea itself acknowledges, 27% of babies are born stunted. International food aid would be available to prevent and change this. However, North Korea will not allow UN and private food donors to monitor the supply of food to needy people. Monitoring is essential to make sure that food supplied by donors is not confined to the elite. These are just some of the shocking evidence produced to the COI.

CuriousPenguins8 karma


MichaelKirby23 karma

Thank you for coming to the forum with Prof Allan. I also enjoyed it. It proves that law (especially constitutional law and international law) need not be boring. They are about the nature of human society and the way we should live together in peace and harmony respecting the rights of all, particularly unpopular minorities. I did not approach the Inquiry into North Korea with hostility. I approached the task with a determination to act with independence and integrity, based on the evidence; and to give North Korea a full chants of due process and fairness to participate. This they refused to do. But they cannot buy that action opt out of the scrutiny of the international community.

Thank you for your comment on the decision of the High Court of Australia in Tofilau. Whether other judges will agree with my dissenting reasons remains to be seen. But at least in Australia, the judges are completely independent of the executive government. They do not bend in the wind. They do not shout and denounce people who are before the charged with criminal offences, as was reported in the hastily convened military trial of the present supreme Leader of DPRK's uncle:Jang Song-thaek. What a travesty of justice was demonstrated there. One of the most powerful persons in the nation was suddenly arrested; quickly placed before a military tribunal; called a ‘’mad dog’’by the supposedly independent military judges; convicted and executed by firing squad all within a space of four or five days. If this can happen to such a powerful man, married to the aunt of the present supreme leader; daughter of the founder of DPRK, one can imagine what happens to lesser beings. Having independent judges is absolutely essential to the reality of the rule of law. This does not exist in North Korea

Spooged_Potato8 karma

What is the main deterrent to international military intervention in North Korea. Is it the regimes possession of wmd's or a practical nightmare of occupying the country?

MichaelKirby19 karma

I do not wish to enter into the issues of military intervention in DPRK. Nowhere in the report of the COI is this mentioned or contemplated. Indeed, the COI report was very clear that responses should be targeted at the leaked and should not add to the burdens of ordinary citizens of DPRK, who have suffered enough. Particularly in the orderly supply of food

threesmallwolves7 karma

Hi Michael, thanks so much for doing this AMA! We still remember when you came and did a talk at the Caringbah High School assembly, one of the teachers is still wishing she took a photo with you, she was quite excited. I don't know if I have any well thought questions prepared, so I'd just like to thank you for all your great work!

MichaelKirby29 karma

I remember my visit to Caringbah high school in Sydney. It is a public school, like my own secondary school in Sydney: Fort Street High School.

You should never forget your debt to public education in Australia: free, secular, compulsory and democratic.

I will return to your school before the end of this year. Then we can take the photograph that missed out last time.

I remember when I was at secondary school we were told of the work of an alumnus, the Australian, Dr Herbert V Evatt (Then Minister for External Affairs and former Justice of the High Court of Australia) who had been in the chair as president Of the General Assembly of the United Nations in late 1948, when Eleanor Roosevelt's universal declaration was presented for endorsement and adoption by the GA on behalf of the world community of peoples. Back in those school days (1951-5) the Second World War was still fresh in memory as was the Holocaust and the horror of the nuclear explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. My generation would therefore see vividly the need to build the defences of peace in the minds of human beings, including by creating universal human rights and bodies such as the HRC and COI of the United Nations. I have always believed in the United Nations and its principles of universal human rights. I regard it as a privilege to have been involved in the work of the COI.

hullarablo6 karma

Thank you for doing this AMA.

My question is concerning a strongly hypothetical scenario: If Kim Jong-un was convicted, what do you think that would lead to long-term in terms of improving human right issues in the country? Also, do you think that ordinary citizens would be informed of a conviction?

MichaelKirby12 karma

The first step is to engage the processes of the prosecutor for the ICC. That office holder would have to decide what should be done by way of prosecution, based on the evidence available to establish international crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC. Any such decisions would be unlikely to be confined to the current Supreme Leader (Kim Jong-un.)

Any such prosecutions would also take some time and what will happen in that time is not yet known or certain. One thing is totally unacceptable. It is to do nothing and continue with inaction now that the world is aware of the great wrongs happening in North Korea. I hope that this is a message that the COI as been able to communicate to the United Nations and to the people of the world who are the foundation of the United Nations Organisation.

the_flad_masher4 karma

Hey Michael, thanks for doing this. Normally I try and stay out of politics, but I am genuinely curious: why exactly haven't any countries done anything about this yet? With how blatantly bad this whole situation is, I am pretty shocked that no one has moved in and put a stop to it. So why all the standing around, what are we waiting for?

MichaelKirby16 karma

You should get involved in politics where it involves the universal human rights of people on the planet. This is our obligation after the shocking wrongs in and before the Second World War and the recognition that human rights abuses provide the seeds for conflict and instability. The international community actually operated with commendable speed when the COI report was delivered on time, within budget, unanimously and readably to the HRC. A very strong resolution was adopted urging action on the part of the General Assembly and referral to the Security Council for further action. The vote was 30 nations for; 11 abstained; six contra. The six countries that voted contra were: China, Cuba, Russian Federation, Vietnam , Venezuela and Pakistan. Three members of the Security Council immediately invoked theArria procedure to secure a briefing to the members of the Security Council (France, United States, Australia). This was also a very powerful meeting with strong support voiced for action against DPRK for its shocking human rights record. I believe there will be further follow-up so that the Chronicle is not yet fully written.

Colonel-Cathcart3 karma

Have ever you been to North Korea? If you met with any officials there, what was your meeting like and how do they act in relation to other world leaders?

MichaelKirby19 karma

North Korea refused to permit the COI to enter its territory. This was despite the fact that the United Nations HRC expressly urged North Korea to cooperate fully with the COI and its investigation. We gave them notice and requested access. They refused. But this did not stop our Inquiry. There are 26,000 refugees from North Korea in South Korea. We had no difficulty in securing testimony. In the end, we had to cut off the gathering of testimony so as to get our report concluded in time by March 2014. The testimony was compelling. It was very similar to the testimony one sees on visiting a Holocaust Museum by those who were the victims of Nazi oppression in the last century. The witnesses told their stories in a low key way, without exaggeration. You can judge the testimony yourself by going online and having a look at the witnesses. Reach your own conclusion concerning their truthfulness and the importance of what they said for safeguarding human rights and international peace and security. A country which so grossly abuses the human rights of its people is inevitably an unstable danger to its neighbours, the region and the world.

jpdeal3 karma

Seeing as North Korea is so opposed to global media and international bodies such as the UN, how did the commission gather and verify the information used in the report on Kim Jong-un?

MichaelKirby18 karma

The methodology of the COI is described in detail in the report and in the supplementary findings, both of which documents are online. They are available not only in English but in the United Nations languages plus Korean and Japanese (at this stage report only). When the COI was denied access into North Korea we determined to undertake public hearings. Our transparency would be the antidote to North Korea's closed society. Where it was safe to do so, witnesses were interviewed in public and their testimony filmed and it is online. You should go and have a look at it and reach your own conclusions. We found the witnesses overwhelmingly convincing, understated and truthful. We also had access to satellite images; to statistical and other material, including some published by North Korea itself; and to the reports of experts whom we interviewed, in some cases as witnesses in our public hearings. We believe that we gathered a great deal of insight into the human rights abuses in North Korea. We have now reported our insights and it is now the responsibility of the international community to act quickly and effectively. It is good that you are showing an interest. In the past, North Korea has been brilliant in its strategy of cutting itself off from the scrutiny of the global community. This it should no longer the permitted to do. We have shone a light on a dark country. No doubt you have seen the satellite image of the Korean peninsular. South Korea and nearby China are ablaze of light and Prosperity. North Korea is a great dark void with only a few pinpricks of light around the capital city Pyongyang.

pagan4573 karma

Can you see a positive outcome ever coming from NK? Or will it forever be the state we know today?

Also do you think a country would stage an intervention there?

MichaelKirby4 karma

I think this was answered here